How does hippopotamus taste

How hippos nearly conquered the United States

Sarah Gailey's novel "River of Teeth", a western of a different kind, recently appeared: it doesn't show cowboys on horseback galloping across the prairie. Instead, "hoppers" ride hippos through the marshland of the American South - on land as well as in water.

Like most alternative world novels, River of Teeth is based on a change in a historical fact: in the case of Gailey's bizarre scenario, it was an actual vote in the US Congress on the naturalization of hippos in the southern states.

The plan was proposed in 1910 by the Democratic MP and later Senator of Louisiana Robert F. Broussard, who saw the bayous of his home state as an ideal environment for the African colossi. Naturalization was supposed to kill two birds with one stone: On the one hand, hippo breeding was supposed to eliminate the bottleneck in meat production at the time. And by the way, the animals could also help to get rid of an extremely annoying plant.

Since the 1880s, water hyacinths introduced from the Amazon region had begun to spread in Florida and Louisiana and developed into an ecological plague. Water hyacinths can overgrow entire bodies of water and literally suffocate - they can even hinder shipping. The hippos should simply eat them up.

A whole series of countries - above all Australia - can tell a thing or two about what happens if you think you can drive away one bioinvasor with another. In Broussard's time, however, the trial and error system was still used, in some cases with consequences to this day.

Because in the 19th and early 20th centuries, all sorts of animal species were released away from their homeland, whether as farm animals (such as dromedaries in Australia), game (roe deer and deer in New Zealand) - or just for fun: In the 1930s Norway's national nature conservation association, for example, tried to settle penguins in Lofoten. Two decades later, the Norwegian penguin colony disappeared again - but not every bioinvasor is so easy to get rid of.

Meanwhile, Broussard found well-known supporters for his plan, including former President Theodore Roosevelt, who is known for his interest in nature. The Department of Agriculture and renowned newspapers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times were also able to warm to the idea of ​​a hyacinth-destroying meat supplier. Nevertheless, Broussard's initiative failed in a vote in Congress, and the Hippo did not become an American.

It is difficult to say how the hippos would have affected their new home. But probably not like in Gailey's humorous novel scenario, in which the owners of floating casinos dump cardsharps into the Mississippi, where they are torn to pieces by packs of wild hippos ...

Instead, the swampy south of the USA is now dealing with another large animal that no longer has any natural enemies when fully grown: Southeast Asian tiger pythons were released in Florida's Everglades in the 1970s and have continued to spread since then.

The giant snakes over four meters long are not only a threat to almost all of the native fauna. They also compete fiercely with the alligators for a place at the top of the food pyramid. In contrast to the pythons, hippos are not carnivores - except in rare exceptional cases - but cherries are not good to eat with them because of their territorial behavior and their high willingness to be aggressive.

Jon Mooallem, an American journalist specializing in human-animal relationships, took this bizarre marginal note in US history and in particular the complicated relationship between Robert F. Broussard and his colleagues, the adventurer Frederick Russell Burnham and the South African big game hunter and spy Dedicated to Fritz Joubert Duquesne.

Mooallem's 76-page essay "American Hippopotamus" from 2013 is available as an e-book and audiobook. You can also read the text for free on the website of the magazine "The Atavist":

-> The Atavist: "American Hippopotamus"

In an interview with "Wired" Mooallem summarized the background of the story in a nutshell:

-> Wired: "The Crazy, Ingenious Plan to Bring Hippopotamus Ranching to America"

Sarah Gailey, however, has tasted blood like the hippos in her novel and is expanding her wild western story into an entire series. Part 2 should appear in September. (jdo, June 5, 2017)